Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Disenfranchisement by design

The disability charity Scope has released its 2010 Polls Apart Report (PDF) on the inaccessibility of the general election.

67% of polling stations surveyed by the charity had one or more serious accessibility flaws. 68% in 2005, 69% in 2001, so at this rate, we should have accessible polling stations for the 2345 general election. Only around half of the polling stations without serious accessibility flaws did not have some other flaws, so perhaps even longer than that.

They note - with evident anger at what the press considers newsworthy - that the unusual reported disenfranchisement of voters in the recent election is a regular and unreported occurence for many disabled voters.

Some quotes from the report follow, but if you have time, the whole thing is worth reading.

Page 12 of the PDF:

When we wrote to all local authorities, we found that they already knew that 14 percent (n = 3,851) of the polling stations they had reviewed for accessibility and intended to use at the election would not be accessible to disabled voters.

More details on page 17 of the PDF, including the finding that up to 11% of local authorities had failed to meet their legal obligation to review polling accessibility, and that of the 890 polling stations that were found to be inaccessible, only 60 were changed.

Page 20 of the PDF, regarding voters who require an assistant to help them vote:

Over the course of the Polls Apart campaign we have come across a number of worrying cases of disabled people not being allowed to vote (or only being able to after a long and strenuous confrontation) because presiding officers do not know when to grant admittance to a companion to assist with voting. As this Polls Apart 5 campaigner told us:

"I arrived accompanied by both my wife and one of our daughters to vote. We checked in, and one of the electoral staff asked: (not sure who it was directed to wife or daughter) `Does the gentleman need help in completing the form?' `Excuse me I am here.' was my response. The electoral officer became agitated when I suggested that either my wife or daughter would assist me if I was unable to cope. This, it appeared, was like a red rag to a bull in that suddenly all sorts of obstacles were thrown up, not least the: `Well, I am supposed to help, but if a family member helps then there is a lot, a great deal of paper work to complete.' He seemed even more perturbed when I responded: `Fine, get the forms ready as I want someone I know and trust to help me, not a stranger.'"

They draw attention to the fact that many disabled people were not allowed to vote at all until 1949 or 1983 (depending on disability). Suffrage was not entirely clear until 2006, though, as this reversed the burden of proof - rather than the voter having to prove that they are capable of making an autonomous voting decision (a requirement obviously open to abuse), it is now required to prove that they cannot.

We will get to universal suffrage one day, I'm sure. I remember being told that we had had it for years, but 1949, 1983, 2006 all gave it to more people who should never have been denied the vote in the first place, and none of those dates were even mentioned. Sadly, though, not all the polling staff are up to date on this. From page 33 of the PDF:

However, we found that 6 percent of disabled voters had their ability to vote questioned by polling staff. This is a significant concern and implies that, despite clear guidance from the Electoral Commission, some electoral staff still feel they have the right to make ill-informed decisions about who can and cannot vote.

The report of polling stations not being prepared for blind voters seems to have been the norm: only 25% of polling stations had a tactile voting device that they knew how to use.

Page 37 of the PDF, in a section on the accessibility of postal votes (better than that for polling stations on average, but that average hides a lot of details):

Postal voting remains inaccessible to many disabled people, particularly those with visual impairments, dexterity issues, learning difficulties and low literacy. Postal voting should be a choice, not the only option, and we were concerned that some disabled people reported feeling pressured to choose a postal vote as an alternative to their inaccessible polling station.

Page 41 of the PDF makes an excellent point:

Finally, on a wider point, a notable absence at the 2010 General Election, and past elections for that matter, are disabled election staff. We all know that when a particular group is not represented in a particular area of life, at work or in our school, then the needs of the group are not visible and therefore not addressed.


This theme has been addressed in part through a parallel debate centred on the difficulty disabled people face in becoming elected representatives in public life, and the solutions that have been proposed to promote more disabled people to stand for office. There is clearly some learning that can be taken here to design solutions for increasing the number of disabled people who are involved in an official capacity in the planning and delivery of elections. The increase, in turn, may lead to greater awareness and understanding amongst electoral services about the access barriers that many disabled voters can face, and most importantly, how to remove them.

...and on Page 42 of the PDF a clear criticism of privilege and disablism.

What was interesting for the Polls Apart campaign was the way in which lack of access to the ballot and unhelpful behaviours and actions by election staff were portrayed as something new. As something that only happens in the fragile democracies of `third world countries', to borrow the phrase of a number of commentators and broadcasters at the time. We have been reporting for over 18 years about the fact that hundreds if not thousands of disabled people at every election, here in the UK, have experienced significant access barriers or not been able to cast their vote safely or in secret. What we are seeing in these experiences is the more visible articulation of the extent to which our inherently inaccessible voting system is vulnerable to unexpected events, such as an increase in voter registration or turn out, and the serious impact it has on voters' experiences.

Scope set out a broad set of recommendations to solve these problems. Whether any of them actually get done will be harder to tell - I'll certainly be watching to see if any of them make it into the government's electoral reform bill, whenever that appears.